Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Some Sachs links

Steve Horwitz is getting very mad at me, which is both confusing and frustrating. It's confusing because I've been presenting a fair and straightforward case for why I like the Sachs post. As far as I can tell the only thing that separates libertarians from non-libertarian liberals is that libertarians give primacy to liberty in a way that non-libertarians don't. Sachs said this. There are deontological and there are consequentalist libertarians and Sachs said this - he communicated that distinction fairly effectively to Huffington Post audience - which is not easy. On top of that he did what most critics of libertarianism don't do. He acknowledged the wide range of opinion on government that exists among libertarians. It genuinely struck me as a good short treatment of the subject for an audience that is likely to be unfamiliar with the nuance.

I found Horwitz's dismissal of me frustrating because I've always looked at Steve as one of the good guys that doesn't just dismiss people for disagreeing with him. And he's also someone that's respected what I've had to say in the past and taken me at face value - he was the one that invited me to publish at the Review of Austrian Economics and suggested my paper would be a good fit.

What's most insane about his concerns is that Steve and the BHL crew are a perfect example of the second sort of libertarian that Sachs mentions - he calls them "economic libertarians", but we might call them "consequentialists".


Bob Murphy actually does think the Sachs article zeroes in on libertarianism, noting the exact same points that I have been. He also links to this site. Bob makes an extreme deontological point, linking back to his views on the asteroid. But you don't even have to be that extreme. You could tax to fund asteroid protection and still make Sachs's point. After all - he points out the acceptance of certain government functions by Friedman and Hayek.


Ryan Murphy is worried about essentialism in all this. I'm not sure why. Essentialism is a problem for exactly the reasons that Ryan states, but I don't think that's a persuasive reason to call defining these things "pointless". If it were pointless, then dictionaries wouldn't sell so well. We need words to label and talk about things precisely because things don't have essential essences. It's precisely because one thing bleeds into another that we need words to demarcate boundaries when we talk about abstract ideas. If we end up fighting over the exact edges (is Friedman a libertarian or not?) then I think we've started to get pointless. If we're just trying to get a workable definition of libertarianism so that it doesn't encompass 94% of the Western world, I don't think that's pointless.

And actually I didn't even think we'd be arguing over this. I thought this Sachs article was good and I genuinely didn't think anyone would raise any hackles over it.


But I do wonder if we're ever going to get a reasonable discussion about this sort of thing. Commenter Tel and Bob Murphy's blog drives that point home for me when he writes:

"I don’t like the way Jeffrey Sachs describes it because it falls into the same trap that Statists always use: if you don’t like government taking over education, then you must be opposed to all education; if you don’t like government taking over health care then you must be opposed to all health care; if you don’t like government taking over charity then you must be against all charity… and so it goes."

Granted, using the word "statist" is a tip-off, but if you think Sachs said that, then we have much more fundamental problems here. We're not even talking about the same article and people like Tel clearly have other issues they need to work out on their own.


  1. You really do have a sensitivity to the word "statist". I remember this sensitivity well from our discussions last year, so I have been pretty cool about not using it around you (I may be argumentative, but I am not a jerk). However, I would like to give you a little explanation at how I view the whole statist vs anti-statist dynamic. In fact, I think that this will give a further insight as to why libertarians such as myself will label somebody a statist.

    I have never really liked the term "anarchist" as a description of somebody that is anti-state, because it implies a loss of order or governance, which certainly isn't the anarchist position (at least not regarding ancaps or market anarchists). The word anarchy implies that there is no authority and/or rule (i.e. no archons). However, when investigating "anarcho-capitalism" it is clear that that those that support such a system do not believe that there should be no authority or rule, they just assign those tasks an entirely different way.

    Governance is present in both statist and anti-statist philosophies, and both also have archons to implement governance. The prime difference lies in how this governance is implemented. An "ancap" wishes to allow the market to determine who governs over a society rather than a monopoly State, thus allowing for an emergent governance that is directly related to voluntary exchange. Judges, for example, will apply the law (common law) as is acceptable to the market. If a judge does not make rulings that are acceptable, or are beyond his authority (such as declaring all redheads be shot), then his authority is lost either by the ruling of other judges or by the market itself. Essentially, it is a polycentric law provided by the market. There is no monopoly state declaring laws, therefor it is anti-state, but not without archons or governance.

    Statism is pretty straightforward, it prefers to have its archons be a part of a monopolistic state and that law be primarily statutory (statutory law doesn't exist in polycentric law). That is really the prime difference and also explains the usage of the term "statist". Anti-statists prefer their archons to be chosen by the market and that governance be emergent from the market. Statists, at least with regard to constitutional republicanism, prefer their archons be popularly elected and/or chosen by a monopoly entity and they wish that governance be implemented by a monopoly entity.

    This is the prime distinction in my mind and is also the prime reason to make the distinction between statism and anti-statism as opposed to government and anarchy.

  2. I guess what I really was getting to is that by definition you're a statist whether you like it or not. I would even go as far as to say that it is entirely impossible to be a Keynesian or an American "liberal" without also being a statist.


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